The growing consensus among Americans is that the housing sector just isn’t working for the average person.
Prices on homes and rent are both up while wages have remained mostly stagnant.
The picture isn’t all bleak though, with exciting new alternative housing solutions available if you’re willing to think outside the box.
Keep reading to find out some of the biggest reasons US housing is so expensive, and to explore some really cool ways you can find your dream home.
The Lack of Affordable Housing in the US
If you’re anything like I was in my early 20’s, you totally understand the appeal of the tiny life. Buying a home in the US seems like an impossible dream to a lot of people in their 20s and 30s.
Millennials are burdened with more student loan debt (see chart below), an average of nearly $30,000 each, than any generation before them. Add on the high costs of living and the lower adjusted wages and you can see why it’s an issue.
As crazy as it sounds, the lack of money (see the chart below) just scratches the surface of why there’s so little affordable housing available.
Cost of Home Ownership
The price for a home in America has never been higher than today. According to Zillow, the median sale price of a home, as of July 2019, was $236,100.
Compare that to the median price of a home in the 1960s of just $11,900, still a shockingly low $98,681 when adjusted to today’s dollars. To put that in perspective, in order to get a respectable 20% down payment on a median priced home in 2019, you’d need to have $47,220 in the bank.
That’s well outside the reach of most average Americans, especially younger Americans burdened by student loan debt.
Cost of Renting
As of September 2019, the median rent for a two bedroom apartment in American is $1,189 a month. When you add in things like pet fees, parking, and other add-ons, it goes even higher.
Plus, with renting, there’s no equity. Your money is just gone every month.
Paying rent every month is difficult for a lot of Americans. It’s estimated that Millennials spend 45% of their income on rent. Compare that to just 36% for Baby Boomers and you begin to see why this is such a pressing problem.
Below is a chart based on U.S. Census Data showing the percentage of income Millennials, Generation X’ers, and Baby Boomers spend on rent (also known as “rent burden”)
Factors Driving High Housing Costs
There are many reasons that affordable housing seems so scarce, but like many things with today’s economy, a lot of it goes back to the financial crisis of 2007/08. To begin with, nearly eight million Americans lost their homes to foreclosure between 2007 and 2016.
Having that on your credit makes it a whole lot harder to get approved for a new loan or to get affordable rent.
Then there’s the fact that houses just weren’t built at the same rate after the Great Recession.
New home construction slowed to a crawl, and affordable homes were the first ones on the chopping block and the last to be started again.
Then there’s just the cost of building a home. Material prices have gone up over 20% since 2008, leading to any new home being at least that much more expensive on the base level.
Below is a chart, according to the U.S. Bureau Of Labor Statistics, showing the rising costs of construction materials.
Alternative Housing Solutions
Now that we’re past the grim economics portion of our chat, let’s check out some really cool (and affordable) alternative housing solutions.
Tiny Homes/Tiny Homes on Wheels (THOW)
Average Cost: Sub $10,000 for DIY tiny homes (As low as $5,000 for really basic stationary builds: click here for our popular post on tiny house kits under $5k); Over $50,000 for professionally built and ready-to-roll models
Pros: Sustainably built, endlessly customizable, capable of traveling anywhere with roads
Cons: Very small space (sub 500 sq ft), can be difficult to find legal long term parking/land, require a pretty powerful truck to tow
The tiny home movement has taken the world by storm over the past few years and it’s not hard to see why. Tiny homes offer the ultimate in affordable minimalist living and allow you to travel the country while doing it.
Most tiny homes include a kitchen, bathroom with shower/small tub, and a lofted living area. They’re cleverly designed and outfitted to pack in as much storage and living space as possible given square footage restrictions.
Credit: Minimaliste Tiny Houses
What really attracts people to the tiny life is the allure of home ownership at a crazy low price. Most people learn about tiny homes through wildly popular social media posts about beautiful homes built for less than $15,000.
Check out this awesome video from a couple who built their own tiny home for just $12,000.
If you think you’re up to downsizing in style, check out my previous article about what building a tiny home is really like.
You can also find some amazing and easy to follow plans that can help you turn your tiny dream into a reality.
Average Cost: $5,000 to $20,000 for DIY container homes, over $100,000 for luxe professionally built homes using multiple containers
Pros: Come with their own weather tight shell, easy-to-plan dimensions, containers widely available, highly flexible design options, can be daisy chained together almost endlessly
Cons: Limited internal space, require a foundation or post system, need substantial insulation
Container homes use widely available international shipping containers as the exterior shell of a structure.
Instead of building a frame and adding in some kind of cladding material, the existing weather-tight shell of shipping container acts as the roof and exterior walls of your home.
A single 40’ shipping container offers just under 300 sq ft of internal space, just about the same as your average tiny home.
The containers themselves are inexpensive, available for as low as $2,000 used, and designed to stand up to everything mother nature can throw at them.
They’ve been used to make some really cool homes over the past decade or so and are remarkably easy to work with.
Because they’re standard shipping containers, you can actually buy a completely container home and have it shipped to your land or living space.
If you prefer to DIY a container home, you have tons of options available. Simple projects require just insulation, wiring, plumbing, and a bed.
If you’re looking to go off-grid, you can even skip the wiring and plumbing, using solar battery systems and alternative toilet options.
You can build out a single container or go for something like this incredible architectural feat if you have a little (let’s be honest, a lot) more money to put into the project.
RVs, Travel Trailers, and Van Dwellings
Average Cost: $10,000+ for a used travel trailer, up to several hundred thousand for a new class A RV
Pros: Total freedom to live where you want, when you want
Cons: Your home is a vehicle with everything that can entail, you have to find parking every night, camping fees can add up, gas prices
If you’ve been on social media at all for the past few years, you’ve no doubt seen #Vanlife pop up somewhere.
There’s something really romantic about cutting your possessions down to the bare minimum, loading them up into an RV, van or camper, and exploring the wildest parts of the world.
With the growth of remote work and the gig economy, it’s never been easier to make a living location independent. This allows you the freedom to make a professional income while traveling all over the world, and saving money while doing it.
You can go for the luxest of the luxe with a loaded out RV, or embrace minimalist recycling with a pre-loved travel trailer or classic 80’s conversion van. Living in a campervan means you’ll have no utility bills, but a noticeably higher gas bill.
You’ll have to either boondock it (Rubber tramp slang for parking out in the open) or pay nightly, weekly or monthly fees for a campsite.
You’ll also need to figure out how to use, empty, and maintain your own septic system, decide whether you’re a solar power or generator kind of person, and figure out how to keep up relationships/friendships while on the road.
Average Cost: $27,000, with prices starting around $10,000
Pros: Customizable, easy to build, movable, very sustainable
Cons: Requires a wooden/concrete platform plus land to live on that allows yurts
Yurts are circular homes inspired by the packable homes used by nomads in Central Asia for thousands of years.
They came into vogue in the West in the 1970s and have since been refined into high tech little homes, perfect for those who want to embrace off grid living.
A yurt can be fully assembled and made weather tight in just a day or two. It’s made up of a folding lattice work of wooden or composite strips that form the structure of the yurt.
That’s then wrapped with a highly durable material and capped off with a transparent dome to allow light in.
You have tons of manufacturers to choose from, including several that I go more in depth on in our review of yurt kits.
Modern yurts are extremely sturdy and can stand up to extreme weather conditions.
Yurts can be endlessly customized. You can stick with a classic single room design or build out interior walls for things like a kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom.
Want to try out a yurt before you buy? Check out your local state park; many have yurts available for campers.
Average Cost: $10,000 to $50,000 depending on size
Pros: Incredibly eco-friendly, energy efficient, designed with sustainability at the forefront, let you get back to nature
Cons: Can be difficult to get building permits anywhere but remote areas, not efficient in all climate types, almost entirely DIY outside of New Mexico
More of a lifestyle than just a home, an earthship embodies the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle.
Earthships are made by stacking recycled tires and packing them densely with earth, then mortared together with mud.
You can check out how the process works in the video below:
This creates a sturdy and naturally insulative structure made entirely from natural and discarded materials.
Interior and south facing walls are made with old glass bottles to allow natural light to filter throughout the structure.
They’re designed to be entirely passive homes. They heat themselves using the sun in the winter, and cool themselves with their thick walls and excellent ventilation in the summer.
Earthships often incorporate greenhouse spaces and rainwater catchment systems. This allows you to live sustainably off grid for the long term.
We’ll be straight with you, earthships aren’t for everyone. They’re more of a lifestyle than a straight living space and require a big commitment.
Live Freely, Save Money
With the cost of housing higher than ever before, it can be difficult for regular middle class Americans to even dream of home ownership.
If you’re willing to expand your mind a bit on what a home is, there are tons of great alternative housing solutions available.
Considering purchasing a tiny house and wondering if it’s a good investment? Check out our article titled “How Much Do Tiny Houses Cost And Are They A Good Investment?”
If you’re unsure about living a tiny life, renting a campervan will give you good insight into what the lifestyle is all about. Luckly, if you live in the Las Angeles area, we have an article on the best LA campervan rentals in the area. Click on the link to learn more.